Fire and Cloud- Parshat Beshalakh
In this week’s reading, Parshat Beshalakh, the Israelites escape Egypt and are confronted with many challenges.
But what is a “challenge” exactly?
Challenges exist because there arises an emotional resistance to things happening that conflict with what we want. Since it is impossible to act without being motivated by a want, and since it is impossible for the universe to absolutely conform to our wants, the conditions conducive to creating “challenges” are built into the fabric of reality. There is nothing we can do to change this basic fact: Reality is challenging.
The more conscious you are, however, the less you will be caught by the emotional resistance that arises. And the less caught you are by the emotional resistance that arises, the less it arises!
To make effort in consciousness, then, is the only way to remove your resistance, and hence to remove the problematic quality of life. No resistance, no problem- just unfolding situations.
When you are living in alignment with your deepest values, clear in yourself about what you are dedicated to, you are fully conscious of your intentions and you live life with purpose. When you are conscious of your intentions, it is not such a leap to be conscious of your emotional resistance as well.
However, if you find yourself spending time and energy on things that are not of your full choosing, things that are sapping energy and time away from what truly matter in your life, it is almost impossible to be conscious of your resistance because you are not even conscious about what you are doing. You have allowed things into your life- commitments, relationships, activities, whatever- that have no value to your life mission. Whatever those things are that you unconsciously find yourself stuck in- those are your Mitzrayim- your “Egypt”.
If you want to be conscious and free from the constriction of emotional resistance, you have to first be conscious of your decisions. You have to eject these useless things from your life. You have to say goodbye to the Egypt of purposeless living.
Life will be challenging either way, but why do you need to be challenged by things that are meaningless to you? Is it because of guilt? Because of fear? Because you just never stopped and asked the question, “is this serving my life purpose?” Get rid of it. Let the army of irrelevancy drown in the sea.
Once you free yourself from the Egypt of your unconscious involvements, you’re energy is freed up to apply consciousness in a deeper way. There is a hint of this in the way the Israelites travel after leaving Egypt. It says that Hashem went before them “yomam b’amud anan- by day as a pillar of cloud… v’laila b’amud aysh- and night as a pillar of fire…”
“Night” is when challenges happen. Emotional resistance arises, creativity and joy are blocked. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of fire”- meaning, move your awareness into the burning of the emotional pain- don’t avoid it. As you open fully to the experience, the pattern of resistance itself is gradually (or sometimes suddenly) burned up, and the “challenge” actually becomes a means toward transformation.
“Day” is when things are going well. There is a tendency to take things for granted, to lose appreciation for the goodness you are receiving. At such times you have to follow the “pillar of cloud”- meaning, be aware of the uncertainty of the next moment. Know that everything that is working well in this moment is a tremendous gift, a miracle beyond comprehension in fact. One day everything we hold dear will crumble, so open yourself to appreciate the gift that unfolds now for you from this unknowable Reality.
So get yourself free, then follow the pillars of fire and cloud that lead you on your way through the wilderness of freedom. It is a raw and uncertain road, but interestingly the word used for Hashem leading the people is nakham, which also means to “comfort”. Reality is rough on the ego that seeks comfort. And yet, to follow the pillars of fire and cloud is to find the ultimate comfort- the comfort of not running the show, of surrendering the “me” that wants to run the show. This Shabbat may we step off the stage and receive the true comfort of the One behind all shows. Good Shabbos!
Ignoring Ignorance- Parshat Bo
Sometimes you might be fooled into thinking that spiritual freedom is a delusion, that in order to have it you would need to ignore your real problems. Actually, the opposite is true. When you lose your happiness and freedom because you are thinking about your problems, isn’t that the delusion? Is it not delusion to think that by making yourself miserable you are somehow addressing or improving your situation? In reality, you now have two problems- the difficult situation and the inner tension and negative energy generated by your thoughts.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Bo, Moses has been presenting plague after plague to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that his refusal to let the Israelites go free is bringing plagues upon himself. What does he think he is accomplishing? But that is exactly what the ego does: it brings suffering upon itself, rather than allowing liberation to happen.
The remedy is in the opening lines in which G-d says to Moses, “Bo el Paro- come to Pharaoh.” G-d doesn’t say, “go to Pharaoh” but “come to Pharaoh”, indicating that G-d is there with Pharaoh, telling Moses to “come”. In other words, the Divine is found in the suffering itself, not in trying to avoid it.
Bring your awareness into your suffering. Don’t look out into the future from your suffering, imagining that things will be better once you get what you want. The end of suffering and the beginning of liberation is the un-knotting of the Pharaoh, and that begins with bringing your attention into the Pharaoh, becoming conscious of the energetic knot of resistance within. Once that knot is broken, liberation is immediate; it is a leap. Don’t try to be too prepared. When it’s time to go, just go. Unleavened bread and all. There is only one chance, and that chance is now… and yet "now" never ends!
There is a hint of this in the word "bo" which means "come". It is composed of two letters- bet and aleph. The bet has the numerical value of two, and can mean "house". The aleph as the value of one, and among its many meanings are "chief" and "ox". In the movement of consciousness toward any contraction that is arising within your body, the contraction can release and the duality between consciousness and contraction of consciousness can shift into unity. Rather than there being suffering on one hand, and resistance to suffering on the other, there is just presence with Being as it is unfolding. To do this, you have to be like a bayit- a welcoming home for whatever arises within. Then, you can evolve into an aluf- a "chief" of self mastery, unified within, strong and rooted like an ox.
May this Shabbat see the un-knotting of all contracted separateness and may we come close to the Divine Presence in sweet intimacy for healing, peace and wisdom. Amein.
Seeing the Seeing
In this week’s parshah, Moses is reluctant to accept his mission of leading the people out of slavery in Egypt. G-d reassures Moses in an incredibly surprising way- “Re’eh, n’tatikha Elokim l’Paro- See! I have made you G-d to Pharaoh...” (Ex. 7:1)
Moses is G-d? What does this mean? But the key is in the first word- “Re’eh- See!”
That which sees, the awareness that looks through your eyes, is the master over all other forces within. If you don’t know that, you identify with the other forces- with feelings, with thoughts, with memories, with ideas- all those elements of the personality, of the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh within is that bundle of stuff that feels like “me”. As long as awareness is asleep to the truth, that it need not be a slave to “me”, Pharaoh reigns.
But as soon as you listen to the Divine message- “See!”-
you are free. You don’t have to subscribe to certain ideas, you don’t have to change anything first, you just have to see. The awareness that sees is free the moment it stops buying into the story of bondage.
How is this freedom possible? There is a hint at the very beginning of the parshah (6:2): “Elokim said to Moses, ‘I am Y-H-V-H’”. The first Divine Name, Elokim, means the Divine personality. It is a deity. The second Name, the unpronounceable Y-H-V-H, is far more expansive, meaning existence Itself, not some Divine being within existence.
The message here is that your awareness at the root of your personality, the spiritual "entity" of consciousness, is not separate from the rest of Existence. It is Existence, waking up as you, yet completely beyond “you”. To know this is freedom. It is G-d “taking you out of Egypt”, out of the constriction of being separate, a slave to the narrative that the mind is constantly churning out if unchecked.
This Shabbos, may we slow down, open and see this gift of freedom that is being offered to us now and always- barukh Hashem, amein v’amein!
Pour water into a vessel. Perfectly, it takes the shape of the interior. It does not resist one cranny, one curve, one angle; it simply takes the precise form of the vessel, without hesitation and without effort.
Through its fluidity and the pull of gravity. Without fluidity, the water would already have its own form, and therefore could not conform. Without gravity, the water would not pour; it would move like smoke through space.
Now imagine: the water is alive and the vessel is alive. The vessel, once beautiful, has become twisted, contorted, wounded. It longs to be reshaped; it wants to be healed. The water is intelligent- it contains the knowledge of how to heal this twisted vessel. All it needs to do is to push on the walls of the vessel in just the right way to help it back into a wholesome shape, into its potential beauty.
But the water is impatient. In its zeal to fix the vessel, it contracts away from the interior and shapes itself into its idea of the perfected vessel. It pushes on the remaining surface that it touches in attempt to coax the vessel into its own shape, but to no avail. Without complete contact with the entire inside of the vessel, it cannot exert its influence. Now there are two shapes, one distorted and one ideal, with no connection to one another. The water has taken on the imagined ideal of the vessel, but it has lost its perfect connection with the vessel.
Now and always we find ourselves in “This”. By “This” I mean the totality of existence as it meets awareness in this moment. Awareness is like water; it is able to perfectly fill and take the shape of This that Is and is Becoming, Now. But awareness is not passive, inanimate water; it is living water. It is intelligent. It sees and responds. It is not only given shape by the vessel, but exerts force, desires to shape.
And in its desire to shape the reality it meets, it tends to contract away from the surface. This is the power of mind- to imagine the world as different, and to contract awareness into itself in order to form this image. Awareness contracts, and a sense of self as separate from the rest This is born. And, as a result, this self suffers terribly.
There is a hint of this in this week’s reading, Parshat Shemot. It says that the Children of Israel filled the land of Egypt- vatimalei ha’aretz. Who are the Children of Israel? “Israel” means to penetrate the shell of reality to the Divine. To find the Divine is to “fill the land”- to be like water, perfectly conforming to Reality as it arises.
But then it says that a new king arose who was afraid of the Children of Israel, afraid that they might become too strong and destroy Egypt. This king, the Pharaoh, is fear. It is the fear of death of the separate “me” that is formed by contracting away from “sides of the vessel”- that is, awareness disconnecting from the fullness of this moment. Pharaoh is the king Mitzrayim- the land of narrowness, the King of Contraction.
What is his strategy for survival? He imposes harsh labor on the Children of Israel and attempts to weaken them that way. This is the suffering that comes not from work, but from the tension we bring to our work- the tension of contracting into separateness. At some point, the suffering becomes too great and the Israelites cry out to the Divine “from their labor”. It says that the Divine “saw the Children of Israel, vayeida Elokim- and the Divine knew.”
This word for “knew”- yeida- means to “join with”. It is the same verb used to describe the intimate union of Adam and Eve. It is telling us- when our suffering becomes the cry of prayer, the awareness that is our Divinity within can again become fluid like water, re-joining in the fullness of presence with the presence of fullness- Reality as it arises, Now.
How do you make this happen? You don’t; gravity does. “Gravity” is the natural movement of awareness to fill this moment with its presence, once it surrenders its separateness. When we express our suffering in the cry of prayer, there can be this profound release. This release doesn’t destroy our vision for the future. It doesn’t deny the pressure we must exert on the walls of the vessel. It simply releases the contraction away from the walls and returns us to our own wholeness, our own perfection.
This is your own inner perfection, your own Divinity, right Now: to perfectly fill the ever-imperfect manifestation of being as it moves Now. In this is the release of all inner tension, the release of the whole drama of the “me” in the world. And, it is the birth of the Divine as it expresses Itself through you, as it is needed, Now. It is the inner Moses, whose name means “drawn from the water”…
And this is also the sacred promise of Shabbos- to separate from Pharaoh’s crushing labor for twenty-five hours and become fluid once again, to surrender to the gravity of wholeness, for the Divine to be born within. So it may be, Now, for us all-
There is a Hassidic story of the saintly brothers Rabbi Shmelky of Nicholsberg and Rabbi Pinkhas of Koretz. They were greatly troubled by a passage in the Mishna (9:5) that says one should say a blessing for bad things that happen as well as good. They came to their master Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezrich, and asked him, “Our sages teach that we should praise and thank Hashem for the bad well as the good. How can we understand this? Wouldn’t it be insincere to give thanks for our suffering?
The Maggid replied, “Go to the House of Study. There you will find Reb Zusha smoking his pipe. He will give you the answer.”
When they arrived at the House of Study they found Reb Zusha and put their question to him. Reb Zusha simply laughed and said, “I think you’ve made a mistake coming to me. You had better go find someone else, because I myself have never experienced suffering in all my life.” At first, the two brothers were taken aback. They knew that Reb Zusha’s life was riddled with poverty and misfortune. Then, they realized- Zusha had a very different relationship with his “suffering”.
The human nervous system is a Heaven/Hell engine. Which one will your engine produce? The whole purpose of the spiritual path is to produce Heaven, for Heaven to be born within. To do this requires not just conscious choice, but also commitment. The moment you make this commitment, you are on the Path.
You need commitment because there is a common pitfall. If you wish to have Heaven and not Hell, you may think that you can somehow avoid the Hell, avoid the suffering. But, like physical birth, there is pain in birthing Heaven. A person must be willing to endure this pain, to get to the other side- to walk through Hell to get to Heaven. Without commitment, you are likely to give up at this point. But if you persevere, the pain of suffering begins to look entirely different. As in the birth of a child, it is ultimately a blessing.
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayekhi, is the last reading of the book of Genesis. Jacob is dying, and he calls his son Joseph to bring his two sons to him, that he may bless them before he dies. Joseph arranges his sons with the older brother Menashe at Jacob’s right hand and the younger brother Efraim at Jacob’s left. This way, the older will get the blessing of the first born from Jacob’s right hand, as was the custom. However, Jacob reverses his hands, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head instead. He then blesses the boys with the words- “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe.’” Today, there is a tradition for parents to bless their boy children on Shabbat with these words.
Why does Jacob switch his hands and reverse the order? What is so special about Efraim and Menashe that they should become the paradigm for blessing boys?
Let’s go back a few readings to Parshat Mikeitz, when Joseph names his sons. He names his first-born son Menasheh because, he says, “The Divine has made me forget (Nashani) my troubles”. He names the second son Efraim because “The Divine has made me fruitful (Hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
These two names actually describe the process of spiritual awakening and the birth of the inner Heaven. First there must be an intensification of awareness in the body, an anchoring of the mind in the present. This, by necessity, entails a surrendering of mental preoccupation with the past and the suffering that is created by this type of thought. The ordinary worries of the mind, the “troubles”, are “forgotten”. This opens a new space in one’s consciousness that was previously taken up by excessive thinking.
After that space has opened up, the spiritual “fruit” can be born within- the inner Light of joy, freedom and bliss- the inner Heaven. But, as the verse says, “The Divine has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” In order for this inner Light to come forth, one must first feel fully any emotional pain that has previously been blocked. Most people have a good amount of suppressed pain from a lifetime of difficult experiences. When feelings are unpleasant, we naturally want to avoid them. We can become expert at putting up inner barriers so we don’t have to feel them. But those inner barriers take energy. They divide us internally and block us from our own life energy and from life as it is happening in this moment. They block the blossoming of Heaven on Earth.
When you begin to open to this inner suffering, you may want to turn back. It’s easy to forget the good that lies at the other end. Perhaps this is why Jacob reversed his hands, putting Efraim first in the formula- “y’simkha Elokim k’Efraim v’kh’Menashe- may the Divine make you like Efraim and Menashe”. In other words, remember that the “fruit” is the point. You won’t have to walk through Hell eternally. Contrary to the Christian fundamentalists, the Hell fires do burn themselves out eventually, if you feel them fully. This means becoming deeply open to whatever arises in your field of awareness as your consciousness comes to dwell within your body, in your heart, in the present.
There is another hint of this in the verb Joseph uses when he says that the Divine made him “forget- Nashani”- his troubles. The verb root is Nun-Shin-Heh. Besides the meaning “to cause one to forget”, this verb also means, “to feminize”. In classical symbolism, “feminine” means “receptive”. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, which is often characterized as masculine. Perhaps this is why the blessing of Efraim and Menashe has traditionally been used for boys. If you truly wish to awaken, you need to temper the “masculine” activity of inner conflict with the “feminine” quality of openness. In this openness, you may have to suffer the pain that emerges, but it will pass, and its fire will transform you. Like the fiery sword that guards the Garden of Eden, you must pass through, allowing it to slay all that is false.
Jacob gives his blessing on the threshold of the Book of Exodus, where his descendents descend into the suffering of slavery, only to be saved and brought into freedom with the Divine Presence. May we all receive this instruction and with it the faith and commitment to walk through the fires of whatever “hell” emerges in service of the Divine Presence that wants to be born through each of us. Amein, Good Shabbos!